Interview with Assistant Minister Kearney and Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing – 11 April 2023

Read the transcript of Assistant Minister Kearney's interview with Greg Jennett on the Voice to Parliament, vaping and Chinese trade tariffs.

The Hon Ged Kearney MP
Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care

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GREG JENNETT, ABC AFTERNOON BRIEFING: Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, Ged Kearney and Shadow Minister for Local Government and Regional Development, Darren Chester, both joining us now. We will come back to vaping I promise but why don't we step through the Voice, the dominant political issue at home, and Ged, Julian Leeser has gone but will be joining the yes side of the campaign. Obviously, Labor relishes the idea of some destabilisation on the Coalition frontbench. But what of Julian Leeser's decision and any momentum it may bring, particularly among conservative voters Ged in persuading people through the campaign proper?


I think this is a significant development today in the campaign for a Voice which is as we know a very generous offer from our First Nations communities, and that is for recognition in our constitution and a Voice to Parliament. Julian Leeser today moving away from the no position of the Opposition, I think is making a very, very strong statement that all is not well, number one, within the Opposition, as you said on this point. And there are a number of people in the Opposition that simply do not want to be on the wrong side of history. I am really beginning to feel that the momentum is with Australians wanting to support the Voice and this is a very good sign that that momentum is reaching all the way into the ranks of the Liberal Party. It must be concerning, I think I for the Leader of the Opposition. I'm hoping that it may even, although it didn't sound like it today as we heard, but I think some of us are hoping that it might be the start of reconsideration of many others within the Liberal Party that the no position simply isn't the right one at this point in time. This is an opportunity for us, as you know, to be united as a nation, and I think hopefully more members of the opposition will see that.

JENNETT: Well, Darren, you've established your credentials on this some time ago and explained to us why you were quite comfortable with the Nationals position. But to Ged's point, you talk widely among Coalition colleagues, are there, or is there reason to suspect that there might be, more on the Coalition benches, who are uneasy and prepared to do something about the decision arrived at by the Liberals last week?


Well, g'day Greg and g'day Ged. Thanks for this opportunity. And I know that the Prime Minister is away at the moment on a little bit of leave and that's entirely fine. I hope he's been watching TV today to see Julian Leeser's press conference, because I think the Prime Minister, when he comes back from holiday, should actually say to the Australian people: it's okay to say no, it's actually okay to say no on this debate and have a different position and it doesn't mean you're racist, it doesn't mean you're mean or nasty as the Premier of Victoria's tried to say. It doesn't mean you're not doing the decent thing as the Prime Minister been inferring. I'm just encouraging the Prime Minister to reset the tone of the debate. I mean, he has the biggest megaphone in Australian politics. And the tone so far has been quite negative. So, I would be hoping that we can reset it in the way that Julian Leeser described in his comments today, even though Julian and I are on different sides of this particular argument we can respectfully disagree. And he said in his comments today, that reasonable people can examine these facts and reach a different position. Now Ged and I will vote differently on this debate, but we won't be attacking each other, we won't be having, you know, name calling on your program. And that's the way we've got to get to this resolution of this referendum issue in the months ahead. We have to do this respectfully, and disagree with each other in a way that does credit to our great nation. Because I don't know a single person in the parliament, who doesn't want to achieve better things for Indigenous people. I don't know a single person in the parliament who doesn't want to get out there and fix those practical problems that you and I've talked about and the parliament's talked about and the media has covered in recent years. We have to do better, we just don't actually agree on enshrining the Voice in the Constitution, but we can still tackle those other challenging issues on the way to this referendum debate.

JENNETT: Well, I might push and prod you a little further on what you think's going on among colleagues in just a moment. Darren, but back to you Ged on Darren Chester's point. I mean, obviously, we are a bastion of civil conversation right here right now whenever we can, but what risks, Ged Kearney, to, you know, the tone sinking as this becomes more willing, as a national debate through the latter months, through the second half of this year? 

KEARNEY: With respect to Darren, I think the Prime Minister has been absolutely nothing but positive during this whole debate. He has framed it purely as an offer, a very generous offer from First Nations people. And when he stood up at that press conference, surrounded by those people that had been guiding him and giving him advice on the referendum, and the Voice, one could see the respect, the emotion-filled moment that that really was, surrounded by all of those people who are supporting the Voice and the referendum. I don't think there's been any disrespect or negativity. The only negativity I'm really seeing is coming from the Opposition accusing us of all sorts of different things when really, we're just out there asking people to consider this generous offer from First Nations Australians to have a Voice to Parliament. As Linda Burney so pointedly said, in '67 we were counted, in '23 we've come to be heard. I don't think there's anything negative in that. I think there's only positives around this. And I think the Prime Minister has done an absolutely brilliant job in keeping this very positive and putting that positive side of the debate.

JENNETT: All right, Darren, I don't want to labour the point about, you know, disunity, or not even disunity, I suppose disagreement might be the more accurate term. But do you have any reason to think that there might be another Julian Leeser somewhere around the outer ministry or even the shadow cabinet are wrestling with their own conscience at present?

CHESTERS: Well, it's entirely reasonable Greg, for people to examine these facts, and come up with their own decision on how they want to vote. Now, I think Julian today acted with a great deal of integrity, he made his position very clear, he made it very clear, he still supported the leader of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Party itself. But because he had lost the debate in Shadow Cabinet regarding the position on the Voice, he felt obliged to stand down. And that's entirely appropriate. Now, what I'm trying to indicate Ged is when the Prime Minister uses words, like do the decent thing, what he's saying to people who want to vote no, is they're doing something which is somehow indecent. And that's just not how we need to have this debate. We need to make sure that things like the Premier of Victoria saying it's mean and nasty, the Greens leader calling people racist, or the Prime Minister saying do the decent thing. We need to get rid of those words in this debate, just say, but these are the facts, this is how this is going to work, do you believe it's a good idea or not, have the vote and then move on. Now, I happen to believe it's not the right way to go, I think it's poor public policy. Although I fully support recognition in the Constitution, I just don't think enshrining a Voice, a new bureaucracy in the Constitution is a very good idea. So, I will argue that point when you ask me the question, but I'm not exactly campaigning, I'm just answering your question when you asked me.

JENNETT: Yeah. So on that, Darren, one more to you. Will you be actively campaigning? How would you describe your advocacy as you take it to the streets of Gippsland?

CHESTERS: Well, people in Gippsland, obviously want to know my position. So, they write to me, and I write back to them and explain my position. I haven't been out there campaigning, like an election campaign, I'm not taking TV ads, or radio ads, or seeking to promote myself in any way, I'm responding to people's legitimate questions and any concerns they might have. And the feedback so far, Greg has been it's been quite interesting. Actually, there's not a lot of people actually talking about it yet. But I'm sure they will in the months ahead. But I did get over the weekend, over the Easter long weekend was a few people saying that, well, how's this going to work? Can we get more details? So, they are genuinely interested in finding out how it might work. So, I think there's a long way to go in the debate and I really genuinely believe the Prime Minister can reset the tone of the debate when he returns because I think it's important. Because what we saw today was a principled person with a different view to a lot of his colleagues argue without any rancour whatsoever that this is why he wanted to go forward and I think his colleagues accepted that.

JENNETT: I don't think too many would dispute that observation, Darren Chester. Why don't we move off the Voice and onto something that I'm sure you have some visibility over Ged Kearney, and this is vaping, you know, out of control by most people's estimates, but it's what you do about it as a government. How is this best tackled, through the taxation stream, or through health policy and controls and restrictions at dispensing points?

KEARNEY: It could be all of the above, Greg, at the moment. I mean, this is, as the Treasurer has said, we are very worried about this as a government, we're incredibly concerned about a whole new generation of young people being addicted to nicotine. Simply by the way these vapes are marketed to young children, you know, with unicorns on the packets and bubblegum flavor, they're very easy to come by. In fact, I'm told that 50 children under the age of four have actually been reported to the Victorian Poisons Hotline with nicotine poisoning. I mean, this is this is outrageous, nothing less than outrageous. And it requires nothing more than a really strong response. Now, the Treasurer has indicated that he's willing to look at this. Mark Butler has a review, a report that we're waiting on, and we will be making some announcements on that or the Minister will be. So I think this is something that we as a government are very worried about, we're looking at some strong action. We don't think the current situation is acceptable.

JENNETT: And that wouldn't be an observation restricted to a particular political party, would it Darren, I know Michael McCormack has expressed great concern on this program about the uptake of vaping as he sees it through his own electorate, what about you?

CHESTERS: I agree entirely Greg and there's no point doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We need to own up the fact that in government, we put in a policy arrangement where vaping was prescription only, for adults only and it hasn't worked. And the illegal market has taken over, it's been taken up by kids in a way that I don't think anyone really expected would be quite so dominant in the marketplace. It's all illegal activity. So, I certainly am heartened by Ged's comments and indicate that the National Party has already got a very strong view on this, that we need to put the children in particular, first, we need to regulate this industry in a way we get some control back over it and take it out of the hands of black market operatives. And we need to make sure that we're doing everything we can to recognise that originally vaping was about trying to help cigarette smokers off the cigarettes because it seemed to be less harmful. But now it seems to be a pathway to cigarette smoking. That's exactly what we don't want to happen. We don't want another generation of people getting addicted to nicotine, and all those long term health consequences we're all well aware of. So it's a big issue, Greg, and I agree with Ged entirely. And I'm looking forward to working with the government on practical solutions that work in the regions as well as work in the cities.

JENNETT: The preferred model, just to be clear, from the Nationals point of view, Darren, is to use excise as the main lever or the main tool, is that correct?

CHESTERS: Well, we had a subcommittee of our party and look at this and we came back with the view that we need to regulate in a way that you have it as a substance, which is much the way as cigarettes are prevented from being sold to people under 18. You have plain packaging, you have health warnings on them. Government, yes, it can certainly put an excise on it to make sure that the money then flows on the health system to look after the people who do have these nicotine addictions. So, you know, we have a view that we need to find a way to get the illegal operations under control, or control that black market and get some better regulations in place to protect our children in particular.

JENNETT: Well it certainly looks like it's under active consideration in the budget context, Ged, I think you've kind of already noted that yourself and on trade, Ged, some rapprochement, you know, some settlement in the offing it appears with China on barley. What do you think the consequences of that will be if it sticks, if it lasts, will we be able to call this you know, the end of three or four years of trade - well, differences would be an understatement, wouldn't they Ged? 

KEARNEY: That's true, and that would be a good outcome. But I think what it does signify, Greg, is the beginning of a very mature relationship once again, with one of our biggest trading partners with Penny Wong at the helm. I think it shows that she certainly knows how to do her job and how to go about these situations. It's much better to sit down and talk and negotiate and find pathways through than simply throw hand grenades and blow things up. And I think we're all very relieved that Penny Wong and Don Farrell have done this. And I'm sure that if this works, if this is a pathway, then as you were saying before, on your program that will hopefully open a way up for the wine industry, and certainly set the tone for future negotiations regarding trade with China, a very important trading partner.

JENNETT: Yeah, barley has always been the big one, hasn't it? So, if that nut can be cracked, to sort of mix up our metaphors, but if barley can be sorted out, what happens next?

CHESTERS: You've just blown your entire farming credentials. 

JENNETT: You don't crack barley no.

CHESTERS: Of course, cautious optimism, it's certainly welcomed news, but cautiously optimistic that there's going to be a result here. I mean, the Australian producers obviously did nothing wrong in the first place. And this is why we got to this position where we've had the appeal to the World Trade Organization. Hopefully we get a result sooner rather than later that resolves the barley issue but also then the tariffs around wine and obviously we're a trading nation, we really respect and value those relationships we have right around the world. And it's important that we get this situation resolved as quickly as possible.

JENNETT: Well, the indicators are all pointing in one direction. Let's see if they remain that way. Ged Kearney, Darren Chester great to have both of you back for what is always a very charitable and considered discussion on this program.

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